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Kyoto KYOCERA Sugimoto Portrait Web

Hiroshi Sugimoto is a Japanese photographer and architect, known particularly for his haunting images of the sea and long-exposure photographs of movie theatres across America. His architectural works include a redesign of the gardens of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, and the Enoura Observatory – perhaps his most personal project – a garden-based space that speaks to the artist’s engagement with the natural beauty of Japan. His recent show, Hiroshi Sugimoto – The Descent of the Kasuga Spirit at the Kasuga-Taisha Shrine Museum in Nara brought together Hiroshi’s connoisseurship and sensitivity to Japan’s ancient traditions. His forthcoming retrospective, Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine, which opens in October at the Hayward Gallery in London, brings together the many threads of this unique artist.

Portrait courtesy Sugimoto Studio

THEASTER GATES These days, it’s complicated to be different, to be a strange artist.

HIROSHI SUGIMOTO Art is always strange. I’m trying to hide it as much as I can, but I can’t.

TG Every season it changes.

HS Our show at the Kasuga-Taisha Shrine Museum was quite unusual, as they normally just show the many national treasures and cultural property within their collection. I was given one year’s notice to make a show, to make some thing new to show there. It was quite a lot of pressure.

TG And a privilege, because I wouldn’t imagine that the priests look outside of their treasures very often. They don’t have to. They’re a history museum alongside a shrine, so to ask a living and contemporary artist to do something feels radical. Was it also a chance to think about Shintoism and Buddhism in a deeper way?

HS I asked the chief priest to give me the spirits of the Kasuga shrine, because there are 3,000 Kasuga shrines all over Japan, and mostly they transfer their spirits to the local village. They’ve been there since the 9th, 10th, 12th centuries. Since my art foundation has two or three acres of land, I needed a shrine to respect the spirits of the land and I wanted in particular the Kasuga Shrine spirits to be invited and settled there. So I made the shrine, and one night, 21 March last year, we had the ceremony for the shrine, in exactly the same way as they did in the 12th century and probably for the first time since. The spirits can only be moved at midnight, in complete darkness, and nobody can see the spirits except the priest. They opened the gate at midnight in Nara the day before, and they put it in a white case, closed it, put it in a car, drove all the way there and then waited until midnight to open the door. Everything was covered in white cloth and only candlelight could be seen. Something was coming, you could feel it.

TG So the priest came to bless it, and that started your relationship?

HS Yes, and now once every year on 21 March, we do a festival, Matsui, and then the priest comes. Every month we also do a small ceremony and every day we change the fresh water and the special plants.

TG In the US, it’s difficult to talk about the life inherent in place and material. Materials have power, and they have life inside of them, I’m just bringing more of the life out. If I have a beautiful piece of wood, it doesn’t need me to hack at it to prove my ability – my ability is to recognise that there is life in the wood. It’s a different philosophical position from one which says, I need to build a highway, so I’ll tear down the trees in the way, it doesn’t matter that the trees are 500 years old. In Japan, they’re more likely to think, we have to go around the tree, and we have to protect the roots.

HS It used to be like that, but not any more. The mayor of the City of Tokyo decided to cut down all the trees in our area [in the park Meiji Jingu Gaien], and there were many protests. I put the rope on this tree to symbolise that this is a sacred place to be respected. From ancient times, they paid respect to the space of nature. Even in the origins of Western European culture there was a need to pay respect to nature, a sort of animism, but after some time, humans gained a very strong ego, and desired to control the land and nature. We cut down trees to build an artificial civilisation. Christianity banned these animistic rituals and other gods that older people believed in were seen as primitive. In Japan, we have such beautiful nature; we decided to live together with it. If we ever cut a tree down, we believed that we would be punished, according to Shinto philosophy. We did not embrace civilisation until much later when in the seventh century we adopted it Chinese-style. But at least we tried to keep the forests.

TG The land that you have in Odawara is beautiful. It’s like a playground for the gods. But it’s also a playground for you. I remember the first time I went with you, we watched a family of stonemasons working on a wall. I’d love for you to just talk about Enoura Observatory.

HS It is my lifetime project. I will keep trying to refurbish and add until I die. My idea is to die with a cash balance of zero.

TG That’s my man.

HS The money I made from my art I have spent to make another kind of art.

TG The land was an orange grove.

HS Yes, so it is similar to the land in the South Side of Chicago, abandoned land. In the 1950s and 1960s it was booming, the orange was highly prized. But after the 1960s, because it is so close to the metropolitan area of Tokyo, young people disappeared. Now the population is 200 and the average age is 75. There are two farmers working and their average age is 75. So I bought a huge tract of land for a very reasonable price and when I started to cut the grass, I found some surviving orange trees that were still growing. I established an agricultural farm as well as an art foundation. I had promised the old family to keep the land and the orange farm in nice shape.

TG It’s one of my favourite projects in the world. I remember I asked you, where did you find that stone? And you told me it was from the old train station in Kyoto – they weren’t using the paving stones, so you bought them all. Well, I came home after that and I said, let’s buy some stone! It was a kind of audacious programme to make for yourself, not as a commission, not as an artwork that can go and be sold. It’s a thing that doesn’t move; it’s yours. It’s a kind of private choice to invest in something but because of the investment it gets more and more beautiful and also an example for what others could do. I’m thinking about your project for the Hirshhorn Museum and the way that you can show the work that you had done in Odawara and say, here’s proof of concept. Can you talk about the Hirshhorn project a little?

HS It’s been six, seven years now, but we finally had the ground-breaking ceremony with Mrs Biden present. My basic concept was based on a beautiful collection of modern sculpture and I wanted to place a pre-modern background behind that sculpture as a historical comparison. I thought that natural stone might be beautiful against Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore. However, there was a group of protectionists who thought that nothing should be changed, so there was a big argument.

TG This is the challenge of historic preservation, that it has a bias towards history, even if the context is no longer right for it. It is no longer adaptive. In Europe, you would call it heritage architecture, something that is slightly more adaptive than its intention. I think the idea of another powerful architect reimagining the garden was very difficult for some people. But you could see the excellence in that wall – it was quiet, but powerful against the building’s minimal modernism.

HS Planning started probably at the end of last year, I had to send my skilled stonemason to train an American team. I went through the many stone quarries on the East Coast to find a similar stone and I found it in Pennsylvania. I wondered if I could successfully train an American team. The unions are not a problem, but it means that they get paid two or three times more than Japanese stonemasons and at four or five o’clock, they just stop working and down tools. The Japanese spend 30 minutes at the end of the day cleaning so that things are ready for the next morning.

TG Part of the reason why I enjoyed working in Tokoname and being trained as a potter there was because people worked hard. If you are a potter you make pots every day all day. If you are a box maker you make boxes all day. I was 27 or 28 and still figuring out who I was, and went and had an encounter with an old way of working – generations ago, how people used to work – and had an opportunity to catch some of that. I had a little bit of that from my mom and dad; they were hard workers, farmers in their youth. It changed my productivity for life. I want to get more done in a day. The garden at Enoura is an example of that Japanese diligence and craftsmanship.

HS My stone people have been working basically every day for ten years. Sometimes a team of 10 or even 20 people were working every day to finish it before the opening. But you know, now I’m a potter as well.

TG I want to see some pots! The work that I first saw of yours were the photographs – at first the sea, and then the theatres. The sea felt like loneliness. The theatres, around America, felt like abandonment, the truth of emptiness. Then I came to know your architectural work. The small tearooms, the tiles. The leap from photography to architecture seemed great, but in fact, they’re both about mastering space, managing life and really thinking about how people live in space. I wanted to just ask you – has it felt like a leap to move? The contemporary art world says you can do two things, but you are doing many things. How do you reconcile that?

HS The making of things, whether photography or a pot, is the same. The source is the same. It’s just a new way of expressing myself through the medium. Architecture is a sense of space, and a pot is a sense of space, the inner space and outer space. To create, you have to have a sense of space. ◉